The dream of effective
e-government is looking as unattainable as a transport system that works. Simon Moores
casts a cynical eye over two cash-starved infrastructures.
Another day, another local government seminar and another struggle to reach Marble Arch on an Underground system that doesn’t go there anymore.
I ask the man in the Southfields station ticket window why the ticket machine taking credit cards is still dead. Is this, I wonder, more evidence of the Slammer worm? The answer is much simpler.
"Because," I’m told, "London Underground won’t spend the money on machines that work."
"Can I quote you?" I ask.
"Yes," says the face behind the glass. "I’m a union man".
At times, there’s an unhappy contrast between our third-world transport system and the 2005 vision of joined-up government. Talking to the people at the seminar, the congestion charge is a subject of heated conversation and every indication suggests that it’s going to fail.
I ask for a show of hands from my local government audience. Can anyone tell me of a large Capita project that has worked from day one? No hands are raised, but one person reminds me that the services organisation is still struggling with the much simpler teacher vetting responsibility, and in his city they have no choice but to keep the teachers teaching until the results arrive.
"Can anyone, then, give me a successful example of any on-time, on-budget, large-scale government technology project?" Still no hands, but several shaking heads and a few grins.
The news that the chancellor is allocating a £1bn as a "contingency" against this month’s planned league match with Baghdad stimulates another thought. The huge costs associated with the expanding e-government agenda must surely be predicated on continuing "healthy" economy beyond 2005, but the prospect of the mother of all recessions may yet pose a very real threat to the government’s spending plans.
Ironically, it’s not just me asking these questions, it’s the people working at the coalface of local government e-delivery. They’re telling me that everything that’s not achieved has been reclassified as an "aspiration", that the big picture is too big, that they’re underfunded and that the simple day-to-day challenges - e-mail, encryption, authentication, privacy and business process integration - have still to be solved before work can really begin on the much grander vision of public sector transformation.
One public sector IT manager summed it up for me.
"There are foundations and there are applications. Foundations should come first but they’re invisible and don’t give central government the results that it’s looking for. Applications are sexy but they are expensive and what we have to do isn’t found in any one box in the e-government section of PC World.
"The problem is that you can’t have both without asking for more money, which you aren’t going to get. So the effort goes into the applications and you hope the foundations, like authentication, will be resolved somewhere else …"
If this is a call for a back to basics approach, I wonder if anyone in central government is listening?
What do you think?
Is e-government dead in the water?
Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.
Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.
This was first published in February 2003